A couple of months ago, I was sitting in my first class towards my Master’s Degree in Education, when my professor asked, “Who here was a first generation student?” My mind did a quick scan, and I raised my hand. But until that moment, I never thought about the fact that I was a first generation student, or how that had possibly affected me along my journey.
In 1978, my mom and dad packed my sister and I up and we made the trip from our place of origin, Cape Town, South Africa, to what I would know as my childhood home, Dunedin, Fl. For me the transition was seemingly seamless, though to a 6 month old, most things are! My parents worked extremely hard to make sure we had the necessities. They also did the obligatory checks to make sure we were doing our homework, once we got to that age.
Then high school rolled around. The PSATs were coming up, and from everything I read, it was a Practice SAT, so why study or work hard at it….it was practice! I didn’t understand why my friends were staying home to study for it or even getting tutors to help them. Months after I took the test (of which I am not even sure I read the questions), my friends started hearing that they had won scholarships and that they were National Merit Scholars. But wait! I didn’t see an application for National Merit Scholars; I didn’t get a form to fill out for other scholarships. That is when I realized that I had missed the boat. The PSATs may have been a practice test, but they were also the qualifying exam in order to access a large chunk of these scholarships. But how was I supposed to know that? We had never been through this before, and my parents knew less about the PSATs than I had. That was strike one for this first generation student.
After the PSAT debacle, I was not about to miss the boat on college admissions. I was going to college no matter what. But just how that actually happens is another story. My friends were all talking about college applications and early admissions. Fine, that is what I would do to. I was a diehard fan of the Florida State Seminoles, so that is where I would apply. I was extremely interested in the Journalism program at the University of South Carolina as well, but applying out of state? Without having any idea what the first step would be to apply out of state, that plan was stopped before it even started. So FSU it was! I completed the early application, mailed it in, and on my birthday of my senior year, October 25, 1994, I received my college acceptance letter. Thank goodness, because if I had been rejected, I hadn’t even thought about how to apply anywhere else! I called my parents at work, and they were very excited for me, and I continued my senior year.
Fast forward back to that Master’s Course I started off talking about. In this class, we talked a lot about orientation and advisors, two things I knew nothing about. Until I started volunteering post-graduation, orientation was a myth to me. I never knew about it, and never attended it. The same thing goes for having an advisor in college. I received a letter my junior year of college saying I needed to declare a major or I would not graduate. I looked at the school catalog, and realized I had completed all of the work needed for a degree in English/Creative Writing. So I declared that as my major. No meeting with an advisor, no calls home, no planning or thought of what it would do for my future, just a logical, easy decision. Done.
Although my parents did not know about the college experience in order to guide me, they had set a great example for me when it came to work ethic. I started working in Marketing my freshman year of college, and within a week of moving back home, I was offered a middle-management position with an experiential marketing agency. Luckily, the work ethic I had as an example from my parents, is what really benefitted me more than my actual college education.
Because my family and I did not know about the processes, the “system”, the protocols and the ways of the American university system, I did not take full (or even partial) advantage of my collegiate experience. If I had it to do over again, you better believe I would be one of those students that constantly checks in with my advisor, with financial services, with student activities, with all of it. From my experiences, my one bit of advice to first generation college students would be to ask. Ask your school what you should be taking advantage of. Ask your advisor if you are on the correct path. Ask career services what you should be doing to make yourself marketable. Ask student activities what opportunities are available. And take advantage of every second you are in school. This is the one opportunity in your life where you will not be penalized for not having experience. This is the last time in your life where you are given the resources to gain that experience, no questions asked! Do not let the unknown dictate your college career. Your family may not have the knowledge to help guide you through your college years, but your college does. Speak up for yourself, ask the questions, seize the opportunities!